Guatemalan coffee has been a staple of Melbourne Coffee Merchants’ coffee offering since the beginning, and it is one of our most treasured origins.
We love the distinctly different and delicious flavour profiles that we are able to find in Guatemala, which are a result of the incredible range of microclimates that exist across each of the country’s coffee-growing regions. We have been lucky enough to work with many of the same estates in Guatemala since 2008, and every year we’ve been impressed with the quality and consistency of the coffee produced there.
Overview of Coffee in Guatemala
For over a hundred years, coffee has helped fuel the economy of Guatemala, and today the country is the eighth biggest exporter of coffee in the world. Coffee accounts for 40% of Guatemala’s agricultural export revenue, and it is estimated that there over 125,000 producers of coffee across the country.
98% of coffee in Guatemala is shade grown. The shade trees provide nutrition, prevent erosion and offer important nourishment, infusing the soil with nitrogen and nutrients via the organic matter created by their decaying leaves. In addition, the shade trees moderate the intensity and quality of sunlight, helping to regulate the coffee trees’ respiration and photosynthesis, and protecting the coffee roots and leaves from sun damage. The shade cover also allows the coffee beans to mature more slowly, enhancing the resulting sweetness, acidity and complexity in the cup.
Guatemala coffee plantations cover more than 270,000 hectares, with an estimated thirty-eight million shade trees and coffee plants making up 6.4% of the nation’s forest cover. These coffee ‘forests’ are typically located on steep mountain ranges, in important water recharge areas, and help to protect the country’s ecological health, aiding the preservation of biodiversity in these areas, protecting watersheds and helping to prevent erosion.
Nearly all the coffee produced in Guatemala is Arabica, and processed using the Washed method, thanks to the abundant water supply. Some specialty producers are starting to experiment with other processing methods, too, such as Natural and Honey processing methods.
Many coffee farms in Guatemala are established family-run estates, which have a long history of coffee farming and technical expertise that has been passed down over three or four generations. These families have had the opportunity to refine and evolve their farming practices over time, and many have their own wet mills and drying facilities, enabling them a great deal of control over the way the coffee is processed. This means that the coffees we source are usually traceable back to a single producer.
For most of the producers we work with, coffee is more than just a cash crop. It is a family tradition and a great source of pride; something they are incredibly passionate and knowledgeable about and deeply invested in.
Guatemalan coffee producers are very fortunate to have an incredibly strong system of support provided to them by ANACAFÉ, the Guatemalan National Coffee Association, which promotes the highest standards in every aspect of coffee production. It is one of the most open, transparent and well-run coffee organisations we’ve come across, and it has some of the best cuppers in the country at its lab in Guatemala City.
ANACAFÉ provides producers with technical assistance and education, enabling growers across the country to access knowledge about different approaches to growing coffee, and how to improve their quality of output and yield. The organisation invests heavily in research, advocates for infrastructure improvements within the country and provides extension services to producers, such as soil, water and leaf analysis (to help farmers ensure adequate nutrition and fertilisation) and sensory analysis (providing feedback on samples submitted by producers). ANACAFÉ also helps market Guatemalan coffees nationally and internationally, and has a department dedicated to promoting social development programs within the coffee sector, with a focus on food security, nutrition and health.
Key Coffee-Growing Regions
Coffee is grown across the country in 20 of Guatemala’s 22 departments. High altitudes (1,300m-2,000m above sea level), combined with rich volcanic soil (from the 35+ volcanoes across the Guatemalan highlands) and more than 300 microclimates mean that Guatemala is able to produce exceptional coffee with a wide range of flavours, which vary depending on where it’s grown.
There are eight distinct Guatemalan coffee-growing regions that have been defined based on cup profile, climate, soil and altitude. They are: Antigua, Huehutenango, San Marcos, Atitlán, Acatenango, Cobán, Fraijanes and Nuevo Oreinte. We buy coffee from all over Guatemala, but the three regions we work in the most are as follows:
The Antigua valley is bounded by three giant volcanoes – Agua (Water), Fuego (Fire) and Acatenango. Of the three, Fuego is the only one still active. On our last two visits, we were in town when the volcano erupted, adding some chaos (in the short term, the ash can stick to the leaves of coffee trees nearby and prevent the trees from photosynthesising), but ultimately providing mineral-rich ash for Antigua’s soil. This volcanic matter helps the soil retain its moisture, offsetting the region’s lower rainfall.
Coffee from Antigua is perhaps Guatemala’s best-known and most celebrated and, as such, typically attracts higher prices than coffee from other regions. In 2000, Antigua received a Denomination of Origin to recognise the region as distinct, and to prevent other coffees from being marketed as Antiguan.
Coffees from Antigua tend to be heavier bodied, with notes of dark chocolate, brown sugar and red apple. Some of our favourite coffees come from this region, including Santa Clara, La Soledad and Puerta Verde.
Huehuetenango (or HueHue as it is often called) is in the west of Guatemala, near the border of Mexico. It is an extremely remote area, and very ethnically diverse. This non-volcanic region has hot dry winds that protect the trees from frost, and allow the coffee to be cultivated up to 2,000m above sea level, producing exceptional quality coffees that often place in the top three of the annual Cup of Excellence competition.
Coffees from HueHue tend to be incredibly floral and complex, and very fruit driven. Some of our favourite coffees come from HueHue, including El Limonar and La Maravilla.
Cobán is known for its lush rainforest and cool, wet climate, with an annual precipitation of 3,500m, and regular rainfall throughout the year. This results in a very slow maturation time for the coffees (which can help produce very sweet and complex flavour profiles), with staggered flowering and ripening requiring producers to make as many as ten passes throughout the season to ensure only the ripest cherries are selected.
The wet climate can provide a challenge for coffee drying, and the region’s remoteness also provides some barriers for producers. There are some truly exceptional coffees produced here, however, including one of our favourite coffees of all time, Santa Isabel, which we’ve been offering since 2011.